13 March, 2012

Killing me softly: Art Nouveau & chocolate.

The thing about having friends all over is, well, that they're all over.  They can feel an eternity away, despite all the available techie solutions.  On the plus side, this gives me the excellent excuse to visit all sorts of places.  Like Brussels.
Seen from the roof of the Museum of Musical instruments (formerly an Art Nouveau department store), Brussels on a clear day can utterly charm with its jumble of architectural styles winding outward from a medieval, cobblestoned heart. 
I would argue that no visit to Brussels is complete without a visit to the Grand-Place, a square surrounded by the astonishing fifteenth century city hall and the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (housed in the equally stunning, nineteenth century Maison du Roi).  The Museum purportedly has a nice medieval art collection.  I didn't go in; the day was just too fine.
In front of the very Gothic city hall, these newlyweds posed with assorted family members.  With the flow of immigration the face of the average Belgian (certainly in the bigger cities) has changed, and this can be reflected on the sidewalks of this particularly pan-European city.
Even if you've seen more than your share of impressive city squares, the Grand-Place can actually take your breath away.  It did mine, with its sumptuously decorated guildhouses glinting in the sunlight.
Another endearing square is the Grand Sablon.  It is tailor-made for you if you love to window-shop for antiques, art--and fine chocolate.  To give you energy, remember to start, pause or end with a restorative high tea at a hundred-year old Brussels institution, the Wittamer pastry shop and cafe.
And yes, they have absolutely gorgeous-looking chocolates, but chocolate snobs from the world over really line up for the most acclaimed chocolates in Belgium, made by Pierre Marcolini.  Yes, I did taste some, but I found my own little nirvana, in the beautifully appointed chocolate palace of Patrick Roger. Crowned Meilleur Ouvrier de France (and yes, thus French), the man has a particular gift for associating unusual flavors and providing a complex, yet intriguingly balanced taste experience.  I kid you not, it really is an experience.  How could an astute blend of yuzu, lime and chocolate not be?  And oh, the textures...the caliber of chocolate... 
Oh, and yes, there was a life-like fifty kilo chocolate sculpture of an orangutan in the window.  Just to stop you in your tracks if the heady smell of chocolate hadn't already. To get a better impression, take a few minutes to visit Patrick Roger's Paris kitchen with David Lebovitz, one of my very favorite food writers blogging today (below):
Beyond the chocolate, Brussels is made for wandering, even if you may be taken aback by the parlous state of some irreplaceable buildings. Brussels, as rich as it is in architectural treasures, is critically poor in tax revenue, and the facades and streets often show it.  It is a city that has largely been transformed into a place where people come in to work, before retreating to the more tranquil bedroom communities ringing it.
Despite its challenges, you will certainly find your pleasure in Brussels, especially if your particular weakness happens to be for things of an edible nature...and that even if chocolate isn't your thing.
I was also charmed by some quirky independent bookstores, as well as the more established publishers, like Taschen.  I killed some time admiring the work of Helmut Newton, Bert Stern's Marilyn images and the delicate oddity of Mark Ryden (image below) at the Taschen book emporium.
Of course, if your budget permits, there are any number of Art Nouveau buildings scattered across the city just waiting to be scooped up.  There were a lot of for sale signs, a sign of the financial times...Does this one catch your fancy?
Take a moment to consider the idea, over a dish of waterzooi in one of the city's innumerable brasseries and bistros. Or grab a cornet of twice-fried frites on the street.  They may call them French fries in English, but they are at their best in this city.  My children can attest to this...
As for the Art Nouveau: after the industrial boom of the late 1800s, there was this brief, brilliant flowering in architecture.  The commisioned house for those on the cutting edge became a work of organically-inspired art, a showcase for the pinnacles of craftsmanship in iron-working, stone-cutting and wood-working.  The forms in art nouveau, whether in sculpture, architecture, jewelry or graphic design are sinuous, often elaborate and very pleasing to the eye.  Certainly to mine anyway. 

The leading figure in this movement, certainly in Belgium if not the whole of Europe was the Belgian Victor Horta. I paid a visit to his first private commission, the Maison Autrique, lovingly maintained with its original fittings and furnished with period-appropriate, often original furnishings. 
All too soon, the clocks chimed and my time in Brussels drew to a close. It was time to say goodbye to good friends. 
At least there was a box of really good chocolate to console me upon my return to Amsterdam...
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